According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24. And for years, studies have shown particularly high rates of suicidal ideation and attempts among LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project, which provides mental health support and advocacy for LGBTQ youth, estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ between the ages of 13 and 24 seriously consider suicide every year in the United States. At least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
All of this makes it particularly enraging that the Texas state agency responsible for child welfare took down a website offering resources to LGBTQ youth, including a suicide prevention hotline, simply because a craven, shitty Republican politician kicked up a shitty little fuss about it on Twitter.
Internal communication obtained by the Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune showed that after one-term Republican State Senator Don Huffines, an arch-conservative challenging Gov. Greg Abbott from his right, posted a video message accusing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services of “promoting transgender sexual policies to Texas youth,” DFPS staffers worried that it was “starting to blow up on Twitter” and ultimately strategized to take the entire webpage down—despite at least one staffer acknowledging that such content had been provided “for as long as I can remember.” In other words, this is a slimy attempt by Abbott to preserve his power by pandering to Texans who hate trans kids.
I reached out to the Trevor Project about the Tribune story, and they pointed out that LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system nationally, and youth who have experience in the foster care system report significantly high rates of attempting suicide.
“It is unconscionable that the Texas state government would actively remove vital suicide prevention resources from its website for the sole purpose of appeasing a rival politician. Mental health and suicide prevention are nonpartisan,” said Casey Pick (she/her), Senior Fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “This story sends a terrible message to LGBTQ youth in Texas and will only contribute to the internalization of stigma and shame. We should be expanding access to support services for this group, not erasing what resources LGBTQ youth have to reach out for help.”
Texas is one of at least 10 states pushing to deny gender-affirming care to trans youth. In August, the same agency that took down the suicide prevention resources for LGBTQ foster kids told Gov. Abbott that gender-confirming surgeries for transgender children constitute child abuse, despite the fact that such surgeries are almost never provided to children. Reversible alternatives like puberty blockers and social transitioning are far more common.
Discriminatory policies, and experiences such as conversion therapy, are linked with increased suicidality. Conversely, research shows that gender-affirming care, such as puberty blockers, is linked with decreased likelihood of attempted suicide. Legalizing same sex marriage has been linked to fewer youth suicide attempts.
Simply put, progressive policies around LGBTQ health and rights save lives, while the policies that Republicans are promoting hurt and, ultimately, kill children.
For a long time, it was common practice not to discuss any potential cause of a public suicide. There was a fear that doing so would lead people in similar circumstances to suicide, to feeling that ending their life was justified. But we can’t ignore that we are legislating that justification to trans youth across the country when we deny them healthcare, or access to after school sports, or otherwise treat them like there is something fundamentally undesirable about their existence—rather than acknowledging the reality, which is that there is something deeply fundamentally wrong with any adult who would seek to make a child’s life more difficult for any reason, let alone on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. No one promoting these policies should ever be able to claim they are “pro-life.”
As Will Francis told me, “We have a lot of people who give lip service to suicide prevention and refuse to look at the deeper reasons, and deeper causes and the culture and climate that can lead to suicide.”
Francis was a social worker in Texas for years, including with Child Protective Services, and is now the executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Association for Social Workers. He agreed with the Trevor Project that LGBTQ kids are overrepresented in foster care and pointed out that’s often “because of the challenges they face from their family of origin”—challenges that are unfortunately frequently replicated in foster placements “in a state that is so non-supportive of their identities.”
“Our foster care system is driven by this push to recruit families of faith,” Francis told me. He repeated a line about “families that support ‘our values,’” explaining, “They’re looking for families that align with their political agenda.”
“We passed a law that says a child welfare agency can reject a same sex couple as ‘not adequate’ to be a foster parent,” he said. These are kids who have typically already been denied acceptance by their family of origin, so are starting off with an “increased risk of mental health needs that are unmet,” and then face a high likelihood of ending up with an equally bigoted foster family and almost zero chance of being placed with a family that might actually understand them. The foster care system in Texas is effectively designed to be hostile to LGBTQ youth, and the people running it know that.
This DCFS webpage offering these paltry resources may seem like small potatoes, the bare minimum that the system can offer kids, and it is—but that’s all the more reason it’s galling to see it taken down for political football reasons.
Francis audibly cringed at his own expression as he used it, telling me, “These kids are fish in a barrel. They’re directly in the line of these policies and these agendas which are there to eradicate their existence.”
The bold-faced truth of that stopped me cold. Talking to Francis, I’d gotten a sinking feeling. I confessed to him that in some embarrassed little corner of myself, I’d hoped that highlighting that these policies are deadly to children could provoke some shame in the people pushing them. I live in a purple county in western New York, where I work with teens who’ve asked me to figure out how to communicate persuasively across partisan lines, so they might be able to connect with their neighbors who display Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags. They don’t want to give up on anyone in their community, and I don’t want to let them down, which means I don’t want them to find out it’s fruitless. But what if it’s fruitless?
Francis, talking to me from blue Austin in the middle of mostly red Texas, understood. The truth was, he told me, it’s gotten significantly worse in the last few years. “Before that, behind the scenes, they really honestly did support these kids,” he said. Abbott has pivoted further and further right, and appointed a Department of Family and Protective Services commissioner from Kansas who seems to support this agenda-driven prerogative that “is so opposed to these kids being part of this system and the state of Texas.”
“Certain Texas legislators, and the governor included, do not think that LGBTQ is anything beyond a fringe extreme choice made by people,” Francis said. He pointed me to the official platform of the Texas GOP. “It’s not just anti-affirming; it actively attacks LGBTQ people.” Their position, he said, is “This is an agenda we have to wipe out.”
He pointed out how often children and families have made the effort to show up at the Capitol and testify about their lived experiences, the dangers they face, and how it never seems to make a dent. He sits in the room and watches “this large party of older white people” just be completely unmoved by the humanity in front of them, as though they truly can’t even see it. “The identities of these kids don’t fit into their landscape of Texas,” he said.
That shame I’d hoped to provoke? “Shame is long gone,” Francis said. “Holding up the identity of these children is not changing anything. They literally have a blind spot.”
But he did have advice for me, a way to not lose all hope: “Aim it as close to the middle as you can.” Meaning: It may not be possible to get someone like Greg Abbott to see the humanity of a queer child. But there are people who may not be ready to be Democrats, but are legitimately disgusted with the cruel, dogmatic mess that is the current Republican Party. And I remembered talking just last week to one of my favorite library patrons in my small purple town, who pointed to her husband and told me, “He used to be a Republican,” and the husband’s shrugging acknowledgment, and our conversation about how he just couldn’t abide the hate, the meanness, the cruelty. I told Francis about him, and we agreed: All is not lost.
But the stakes are so high. Taking down a website like that signals to kids in the foster system not to trust anyone, Francis said. “Those are the implications that lead to suicide.” A kid in a bad situation might have before seen that page and trusted that their social worker could be confided in, relied upon to keep them safe. And now? “It’s closing doors that might have been opened, in a sea of so many doors that are closed off to these kids.”
I told Francis one of the things that broke my heart researching this column was a pop-up on the Trevor Project’s website, notifying visitors—to a website that immediately told people who sought it out “You deserve a welcoming, loving world”—to hit escape three times in order to have the webpage replaced by a blank Google search page. He sighed and told me for the third time he was glad I was writing this column, that this issue stays with him in a different way than some of the others he fights for. The kids he had in his care as a social worker, some who were out, some who couldn’t be—they stay with him. We’d already talked about it, but he told me again, “We have plenty of kids in care who are there because their parents threw them out of the house. Sometimes these kids are placed with families that are just as bad.”
“That’s why you hit escape three times,” he said. “And stuff like this, it’s going to lead to—everything we’re talking about, behind it? It will lead to more deaths of kids.”
LGBTQ and non-binary youth struggling with thoughts of self-harm and suicide can access help for free anytime of the day or night via The Trevor Project. If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678. People in crisis can also text HOME to 741741 to chat with someone at the Crisis Text Line, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.